Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Women's World Cup - 5 Key Points

By Shane Thomas

At this point, I'd wager those who consider themselves progressive football fans are beginning to forget this summer's Women's World Cup. News of transfer rumours, and scrutinising the upcoming Premier League fixtures are at the forefront of one's mind, while the vicissitudes of the 24 teams in Canada are fading - like the remnants of a fever dream a few hours after waking up. Well, allow me to prolong the fever by enumerating five key take-aways from the tournament:
1) The Turf

It was a problem before the first ball was kicked. It was only the draconian bullying of FIFA that prevented a lawsuit. For clarity's sake, football's governing body's reasoning for hosting the competition on an artificial surface wasn't a case of FIFA executives twiddling their patriarchal moustaches, looking to make things as difficult for the players as possible. It's not that sexism wasn't an issue, but what some are overlooking is cost.

Artificial turf is generally cheaper to install and maintain[1]. Current FIFA President, Sepp Blatter says that these surfaces are "the future". This isn't a one-off. FIFA want to host all their competitions on ersatz grass, and they used the women competing at the World Cup as their 'canary down the mine'.

No matter that the pitches could get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer sun, players shedding their skin on the turf[2], and boots melting on the surface. FIFA were willing to risk players health for purely capitalist ends.

2) The BBC

While not initiatory, the BBC made a point of treating their coverage of the Women's World Cup as more than an afterthought. While England's run to the semi-finals played a major role in this, it was still pleasing to see them make an effort for the tournament to be fully accessible to British viewers, especially as they could have copped out with the ready-made excuse of matches taking place at inconvenient times of day for those who live under GMT.

However, while they get 10 out of 10 for effort, the execution of their coverage needs work. The analysis improved as the tournament progressed, but the jingoistic prism was a constant irritant, even more so during England games. At times if felt there was a confirmation bias to make England look good. And while one can use the excuse that part of the job was to promote the women's game, if one's coverage is tendentious, what type of game are they promoting?

I also wonder if the pundits were given sufficient training in working on television, as at times the breakdown of incidents was very one-dimensional, especially from Rachel Yankey (sad to see as she is a legend of the English game). Rachel Brown-Finnis seemed more at ease, but you wonder why they felt the need to include Trevor Sinclair, as you can imagine the (unwarranted) outrage if they had a women's player as a pundit during the men's World Cup.

Ultimately, it was promising rather than proficient, but let's hope the BBC build on their showing in 2015, and produce even better at both Euro 2017 and the 2019 World Cup, and please no more punditry of the type where Lucy Ward said Hope Solo "answered her critics" just by making a few good saves.

3) The Anti-PL Agenda

Seeing the national spotlight on women's football, and the overall health of the English women's game is great to see. However, it was wearying to see the praise be caveated in admonishment of the high profile male players and the Premier League, couched in the cliched critiques of being "overpaid and overrated".

For clarity's sake, I'm fully here for the women's game getting some much overdue shine. But why does this country have such an issue with Premier League players? This optique isn't new. For women's football in 2015, read the Olympics in 2012, cricket in 2005, and rugby union in 2003.

It's a subject that's worthy of a piece all on its own, but not only is it a very myopic perspective, it's also disrespectful and unhelpful to the sports that the Premier League is being unfavourably compared to.

Women's football doesn't need to be used as a stick to beat the Premier League with to be worthy or relevant. Anyone who watched the action in Canada should have been enthralled by the women's quality in its own right, rather than be used as a baseline for other athletes. It's patronising and paternalistic. How does it benefit the women's game? If women's football was the only sport that ever existed, it would still be worthwhile. Carli Lloyd's hat-trick goal wasn't incredible by the standards of other sports, it was incredible by one standard only; the standard of great sport.

4) The Scheduling

While I'm certain FIFA will want to take credit for the good that came from the World Cup, much of it was in spite of them, rather than because of. Some of the puzzling scheduling in the group stages had as many as four matches in one day, while other days had no games at all.

And the path to the final for Germany and France has to be called into question, as both sides were set to meet in the quarter-finals, which is what eventuated. Not only were both teams among the favourites to win the tournament, but were ranked numbers one and three respectively in the FIFA rankings.

For clarity's sake, the Germany/France quarter-final matchup wasn't as a result of one of them underperforming in the group stages. Both nations won their group, and yet had to play a quarter-final not befitting of their respective rankings. While many consider the FIFA rankings arbitrary, it shouldn't mean they do the same. If they treat them with the same disdain as the punditocracy, why have them at all?

Germany and France produced a thrilling contest, but this really should have been a game that occurred later in the tournament, and would have done so if FIFA had taken the time to organise their own competition properly.

5) The Future Of The Game

So, as many of the players return to domestic action with their clubs (if male players had to play again so soon there would be uproar about worries of burnout) will the World Cup prove nothing more than an oasis of progress, or can it proliferate into a torrent where the women's game can compete on a more equitable footing?

While proficient media coverage is vital (North American TV ratings and attendances were heartening), any auspicious future for the women's game will need a solid foundation of funding. This requirement is magnified for nations not buffeted by geographical privilege.

Teams like England, Canada, and the United States are in need of increased support from their national federations, but they have a relatively comfortable position compared to countries like Brazil, Nigeria, and Cote D'Ivoire, correlating with the inequitable divisions of resources in other aspects of geopolitics.

In terms of influencing societal norms, one additional thing the BBC could do to supplement their coverage is to produce and screen a documentary (or docu-drama) on the Dick, Kerr's Ladies. Their story was systemic sexism in action, and gives a piquant illustration as to why women's football has been so minoritised in British culture.

Being the planet's most popular sport, the accessibility of football is a significant plank in the progress of society. It's no exaggeration that equality in sports is - as Shireen Ahmed put it - "an intersectional feminist issue". You don't have to be a football fan to care about the future of the women's game, but you can't call yourself a feminist if you don't.


Despite starting the series as underdogs, England put on a proficient display in Cardiff to win the first Ashes test, and lead the series 1-0. Some are delighting in Australia's tepid performance, and stating that their drought in Ashes series away from home - stretching back to 2001 - is set to continue.

Personally, I'd caution against epicaricacy just yet. While Australia were disjointed last week, and have selection issues from number 6 downwards, they still have the personnel to recover in Thursday's 2nd Test at Lord's - with a pitch that will likely be more responsive to their seam bowlers than the surface they played on in Wales.

But what is clear is that Australia haven't just lost the initial momentum, but an opportunity to secure their hold on the urn. When at the top, your priority has to be to defend one's position. You wonder if Australia were still revelling in the residue of their crushing win over England in 2013/14 to realise that this latest cycle of the England team has no intention on letting themselves be tramped upon.

Australia have the advantage of being the holders of the Ashes, so a drawn series will be enough to keep them. But that margin for error is closing. While I suspect winning two Tests will suffice in retaining the urn, they can't afford to give a discordant performance at Lord's. To go 2-0 down with three to play would be a task probably beyond the best Australian vintage. And this Australian side is not among them.

[1] - Even though one of the stadiums had an already existing grass pitch completely uprooted and replaced by synthetic turf.

[2] - It's not as if Sydney Leroux didn't give us advance warning

Part of this piece was first published on Think Football.

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